Osama bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad. The Bin Laden episode is one of the most interesting accounts in Shuja Nawaz’s book | AFP
Osama bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad. The Bin Laden episode is one of the most interesting accounts in Shuja Nawaz’s book | AFP

Shuja Nawaz had previously established his credentials with a masterful exposition of military history in Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within. His new book focuses on what is a sub-set of the discussion in Crossed Swords, ie the relationship of the Pakistan Army and the United States. The author’s timing is propitious — the US administration is in the process of resuming talks with the Taliban and hoping to effect a withdrawal from the longest war in its history. As this process unfolds, Pakistan’s role in the possible negotiation of a settlement is yet to be determined. Once again, there is a trust deficit between these two supposed allies who have to rely on each other, yet are suspicious of each other’s motives.

The book covers the period from 2007 onwards and pays particular attention to the year 2011, which featured the killing of Osama bin Laden, Memogate (when the Pakistani ambassador in the US was suspected of asking the American government’s help in restraining the Pakistan Army), and the Salala incident (when US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan attacked a Pakistan border post). Nawaz calls this “A Most Horrible Year” and devotes four chapters to it. About half of the book — six out of 13 chapters — is devoted to a re-telling of key incidents. In the remaining chapters, the author picks up key issues, including imbalances in the civil-military relationship in Pakistan and how that has affected interaction with the US administration; the dynamics of aid from the US to Pakistan; the calls from the US to “do more” which have plagued the Pakistani military; and ultimately, the choices that Pakistan faces.

Nawaz seems to characterise Pakistan and the US as ‘frenemies’ rather than friends, and quotes from his interviews with Gen Stanley McChrystal — commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2009-10 — amongst others in support of this view. The book goes into some detail about the American top military command’s distrust of the Pakistani Army, particularly with regard to support for the militant Haqqani network. At the same time, the author quotes Gen McChrystal as saying that he knew that the network was only responsible for about 10 percent of the attacks within Afghanistan. The author is critical of the Pakistani command’s hesitation at entering the erstwhile Fata area and points out that then chief of Army staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani dithered on this for a while — it was up to his successor, Gen Raheel Sharif, to launch an operation against militants in the region.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting accounts in the book relate to the Bin Laden episode and to Memogate. Both are dealt with in detail, with the account being remarkably documented through letters written from US officers to senior army officers in Pakistan, to interviews with the US top military brass and at least one CIA whistleblower (Michael Scheuer), to extensive interviews with Gen Kayani. Nawaz’s account supports Seymour Hersh’s theory of support from “rogue” Pakistani military men in tracking Bin Laden. In particular, Nawaz names a retired colonel, Eqbal Saeed Khan aka Bailee Khan, as the key US contact who provided information on the whereabouts of Bin Laden. That name also came up in the Abbottabad Commission report apparently, but Nawaz’s account is painstakingly pieced together and seems credible.

A solidly researched book on the relationship between the Pakistan Army and the United States offers a wealth of details about key events from the last decade

There are other interesting tidbits in the “2011” chapters. The account of the killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, allegedly at the hands of intelligence personnel, is documented, along with his findings on the Mehran Base infiltration by militants. Similarly, Nawaz has interviewed all the key protagonists in the Memogate scandal, including former ambassador Husain Haqqani, key player Mansoor Ijaz and Gen Jim Jones — who had apparently carried the fateful message from the Pakistani ambassador to Admiral Mike Mullen. The whole episode makes for fascinating reading. Nawaz’s conclusion is that the “maladroit” handling of the issue by the then ISI chief Shuja Pasha, coupled with the lack of forensic evidence and the need to keep the use of secret funds confidential, served to put the matter to rest without assigning responsibility.

Nawaz offers a number of optimistic recommendations to overcome the trust deficit between Pakistan and the US. For one thing, his faith in the abilities of the Imran Khan administration is striking (and perhaps typical of overseas Pakistanis). He refers to the prime minister as a “non-traditional” politician (an opinion that should be called into question given recent developments), with an opportunity to lay the basis for a vibrant economy (opportunity, yes, but this is a long term mission and it’s hard to have much confidence in the abilities of the economic team).

Nevertheless, Nawaz believes that the US cannot afford to create divisions in South Asia and that it should desist from taking a path of confrontation with Iran. He reiterates the standard US think tank views on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), that it may lead to “burdensome debt” and that it remains to be seen if China can reduce dependence on its “own labour.” He recommends that the US assist Pakistan by carrying out long-term investment in the CPEC Western Corridor, possibly using undisbursed Kerry-Lugar funds and withheld Coalition Support Fund (CSF) payments. All this sounds a bit pie in the sky, frankly, and is a somewhat disappointing conclusion to an otherwise solidly researched book. Other unrealistic scenarios include the creation of more provinces (including more autonomy for Karachi).

In a section in the last chapter titled ‘What Can the US Do?’ Nawaz sums up his advice to his adopted homeland. These are, again, fairly typical of US think tanks and do not reflect the knowledge and insight on Pakistan that is evident in the chapters detailing current events. For instance, Nawaz talks of using US influence on multilateral financial institutions to reform the economy — but this has been tried umpteen times before and US interference is more the problem than the solution. He also talks of revamping the defence budget planning and management systems to get “more bang for the buck.” Budget reform is a mainstay of international financial institution programmes in Pakistan, but the military does not open up details of the defence budget even to Pakistani public financial management experts, let alone foreigners, and this is unlikely to change. The most unrealistic recommendation relates to the US convincing India to shift at least one of its strike corps facing Pakistan to the Chinese border or deeper into the heartland. This recommendation is, frankly, baffling and hardly prudent for US-China relations.

Shuja Nawaz’s advantage lies in his access to Pakistan’s military and political elite, and his writing is peppered with insights that they have shared. The more interesting sections of the book deal with his detailing of key events. Overall, this is a good contribution to the literature on US-Pakistan relations.

The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst

The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood
By Shuja Nawaz
Vintage, UK
ISBN: 978-9698729097
400pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 12th, 2020